A quick recap:
Finding happiness = having ‘purity of heart’ (inner freedom where we are able to leave behind negative thoughts in order to embrace the good).
The early desert mothers and fathers identified eight ‘negative thoughts’, which hinder this purity of heart; Eight Thoughts afflict all of us to varying degrees, and which ruin our sense of well-being and happiness.
- Acedia; 2. Gluttony.
The third ‘Thought’ is Lust
If you’ve read the chapter for this week you’ll know there’s a lot in there about sex.
- This is one of those subjects that feels awkward in church because we have a paradox in our culture in that it’s sex-saturated, yet at the same time still taboo.
- And in the church, especially in the west, we’ve had such a confused view about the body and sex – whether it’s holy/ unholy, pure/ impure: that our attitude towards sex as Christians can be quite warped.
Let’s face it, without it, none of us would be here, and it was God’s idea! Just like food and eating.
But in the same way as we saw last week, that disordered thoughts about food can lead to gluttony and unhealthy obsessions which cause unhappiness; so too, disordered thoughts about sex can also ruin our sense of well-being and happiness.
The desert fathers and mothers were very down-to-earth, honest, and realistic about sex and the ‘thought’ (or ‘demon’) of lust: realistic enough to know that on the path towards spiritual maturity and happiness, our approach to sex is something we should deal with.
They recognised lust as the most powerful and pervasive of all the thoughts, and the one which attacks most violently.
Everybody has sexual thoughts, and one of the aims of monastic tradition is to help us to direct them, rather than be directed by them, so that we can be free from such thoughts dominating our lives.
That’s the wisdom being offered to us.
Freedom from destructive sexual thoughts is a precious aim, when we think of the damage that sexual obsession and infidelity can cause to our relationships, families, our children, as well as our own well-being.
Abbot Christopher surveys some of the attitudes to sex in our culture today, and believes that in this area of life, people now demand freedom of choice, but in such a way that ‘sexual freedom’ is often reduced to ‘sexual licence’ – something to have as and when we want it.
He discusses the various approaches to sex education, and the effects on young people and children, who are being introduced to (and experiencing) sex at younger ages.
- Another factor here is the increase of addiction to internet pornography, which apparently 28,000 people are using each second, and which feeds lust.
- Internet porn is more easily accessible than ever, with our many phones and gadgets, and those most at risk of forming an addiction are boys aged 12-17, and the psychological effects of such an addiction are unhealthy to say the least.
- I, like any responsible parent, will need to look for ways to appropriately and prayerfully protect my boys and help them towards spiritual health and freedom in this area of their lives.
Like most of these ‘Eight Thoughts’, lust teams up with, or follows on from, others. The desert fathers and mothers noticed that gluttony (disordered use of food and drink) is often a prelude to sexual activity.
Just think about how someone can get a bit too amorous after they’ve had one too many to drink!
One bodily appetite encourages other bodily appetite.
Last week we heard the advice about growing in self-awareness with regard to our food-thoughts. That’s a good way to begin tackling our sexual thoughts too.
Abbot Christopher: ‘In the same way that we are invited to examine our food thoughts… So too we are invited to consider whether our indulgence of sexual thoughts is [a hindrance to our growth as Christians].’ (p98).
The next step is to become aware of the choices we make regarding sexual activity. There are three areas of choice here:
- Activity: whether we’re sexually active or not;
- Status: whether we marry, remain single, or celibate;
- Chastity: whether we choose to be chaste or not.
‘Chastity’ is the key word the Abbot wants to clarify here.
- When people talk of ‘chastity’, they often mean the same thing as ‘celibacy’ (lifelong commitment to live without a sexual partner). But that’s a limited meaning of chastity.
- Chastity means: ‘to live out our chosen sexual status with integrity.’ (p100).
- eg. If you’re single, chastity means refraining from sexual activity outside of a committed relationship;
- But it also means: if you’re married, being faithful to that marriage partner. Because unchastity is just as much a temptation for someone who’s married, as it is for someone who’s single or celibate.
One of the early teachers to whom Abbot Christopher points us for wisdom on chastity, is John Cassian.
- In the end, said Cassian, perfect chastity is a gift of God.
- It’s not something we can attain to ourselves.
- It’s something in which we work with God. Given that,
Here are some of Cassian’s recommendations:
- First, that we use our temptations/ thoughts of lust not as obstacles, but as encouragements to more fervent prayer.
- Second, that we attend to the other things in our life like gossip, anger, and material concerns, and our diet, because these things all contribute to our awareness and self-control.
- Third, that we consider the practice of sharing our thoughts and temptations with a trusted, wiser person. The desert monks had a saying: ‘the demons love nothing so much as a thought that has not been revealed.’ This is a powerful practice for growing spiritually, and shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s a reason why talking things out in the presence or with the assistance of a counsellor can be so revealing, healing, insightful.
- Fourth, the practice of keeping in mind a word or phrase from the Bible, to return to and meditate on when there’s a battle going on in our mind.
- Fifth, to notice the thought of lust coming, and take evasive action. A good method is something practical: get up, go for a walk, do some dusting, or better still, do something to serve someone else like showing hospitality.
Something to look into this week – especially if we struggle with lust.
Abbot Christopher ends with a reflection on ‘loving chastity’, which sounds very odd. Why would we love chastity?
- It is something to love, because it’s all about reaching purity of heart: Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
- The most persistent attacks on purity of heart come from sexual thoughts…’but the desert tradition offers ways of sustaining our freedom of spirit during those surging moments when our bodies are tempted to let go of our awareness and our integrity.’(p111).
Sermon by James Pettit on Sunday 2nd October 2016